For the last five years, US indie publishing house Top Shelf Productions has been devoted to expanding the appeal of comic books and graphic novels beyond their core fan-boy base. Why not engage kids as young as possible to build a new generation of readers, was the thinking of co-founders Chris Staros and Brett Warnock. So the 13-year-old publisher created its Kids Club division in 2004, devoted to finding younger-skewing works that could be enjoyed by all ages. And those efforts have really started to pay off in the last year.
Staros discovered Andy Runton and his character Owly in early 2000. The subsequent preschool-targeted, dialogue-free graphic novel starring the large-eyed owl was inspired by Runton’s close relationship with his mother, with whom he shared a love of birdwatching and taking care of animals. The five-book series has been garnering attention in the kids space, and this past fall got picked up by publishing giant Simon & Schuster. (It’s developing two full-color picture books for release in 2011.)
The property has also piqued the interest of animation folk, as L.A.-based Sprite Animation Studios caught wind of the Owly series and approached Top Shelf about translating it to TV. The prodco, partnered with Japan’s OLM of Pokémon fame, worked with the publisher to create a two-minute trailer for last year’s Comic-Con International. Sprite is now seeking another co-production partner to turn the concept into a full-fledged series.
While Owly is Top Shelf’s main kids priority at the moment, Staros sees potential in two of its younger-skewing graphic novels, both of which have kids TV connections. Woodland fantasy Korgi was written and illustrated by former Disney animator Christian Slade. The ghostly adventures of Johnny Boo, meanwhile, come from the mind of cartoonist James Kochalka, who gained toon experience at Nickelodeon. Both series have new volumes hitting US retail shelves this spring.
Staros is also continuing to fill out the Kids Club roster. He’s always keeping his eyes peeled for appropriate content that has adventure, subtext and heart. Next up, however, is Maddy Kettle, a graphic novel from kids book illustrator Eric Orchard targeting the tween demo. The novel follows the adventurous story of a little girl living in a magical world where floating ships that chart clouds are not uncommon.
Top Shelf is treading carefully with its first kids TV venture, but it’s no stranger to the big screen. Its previous graphic novels that have been translated into major motion pictures for older audiences include Alan Moore’s From Hell (2001), League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and, most recently, Disney’s The Surrogates (2009).
What’s more, entrepreneur John S. Johnson and New York-based prodco Likely Story, run by Anthony Bregman, acquired a 33% stake in Top Shelf in mid-January, giving the pair a first-look film and TV development deal on all of the company’s new publications. Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to Be Forgotten is the first project to move forward under the deal, which revolves around a 40-something father who tries to quit smoking, and through hypnosis therapy, gets transported back to his teen years to re-live his high school days. ECA